It’s become easier to talk about my memory of September 11th. I will always know it by “September 11th”, rather than “9/11″, because to me, 9/11 always sounded like a brand name, or a catch phrase, or a cutesy label that was placed on an event of mind-blowing magnitude that just happened to take place on the date that reads like the American emergency phone number. I will talk now about what I saw from the Port Imperial ferry terminal in Weehawken, NJ. There was a time when you could say I took a break from that, at least from getting into the details.
That break occurred after a particularly embarrassing evening with colleagues in Germany, when wine at dinner did not make for a good prelude to a recollection of my only witnessed terrorist act. Crying in front of coworkers is decidedly awkward, even when your excuse is that a metaphysical element of reality, a part of your childhood, a symbol of human accomplishment and the greatest place in the known universe crashed down before you. The thought that people were dying as each of the World Trade Center towers fell was vague, detached, and abstract. It was more like “people must be dying” rather than “people are dying”. It was only later that I learned that thousands of people died, and in fact the body count started much higher than the final number. And it was only later that I saw the images of people clinging to windows until the last moment, when they finally leapt to their deaths. Of anything I’ve seen, including the unobstructed sight of the second tower falling in front of my own eyes, it is the images of the people clinging to the windows that is most terrifying to me. My mind was later able to connect these images with the sounds from the French documentarians’ film, when as one of the filmmakers was walking through the lobby area of one of the towers, bodies periodically came crashing down nearby.
“It’s become easier to talk about my memory of September 11th.” I note that I wrote that prior to forcing myself to recall these memories. But in one respect, it really has become easier. The world around me is getting used to September 11th as an opening date for a new movie, or a heading on a page in a history book. The world around me looks more or less the same, and it’s not as if I’m witnessing acts on a daily basis reminiscent of what happened back in 2001. And I’ve actually gotten used to hearing about the plodding, botched military maneuvers that seem completely irrelevant to what happened on September 11, 2001, and as irrelevant to a similar event’s prevention.
In another respect, it’s become harder to talk about September 11th. It’s harder because I don’t know what else to say. At the time, and I mean literally in the ten seconds after I saw the second tower collapse in a silent explosion of dust, I thought that the sight alone was the argument. I knew, as I wrote at the time, that this was an act of war. I was not capable of thinking at that time that the United States would not choose to retaliate in the proper way. If I have ever been truly patriotic, it was in those seconds of time. I was truly an American, and I was 100% standing with my fellow Americans in defiance and in the vow for retaliation. The words I still remember saying to myself as I stood looking at the smoky, dusty hole at the tip of Manhattan, was: “This is fucking war.”
I am so disappointed in where our country is at this moment. I honestly don’t see any prospect of improvement, any light, or any tunnel. This is what September 11th now means to me. I see my life, to some extent, as playing in the band on the Titanic. I will always have hope, naively or idiotically, and on some days I will go about my life as if normalcy is possible. But at any moment, the memory of September 11th may resurface like a shot to the gut. And in those moments, everything else becomes trivial. Does any of it really matter, as long as the debt of September 11th remains unpaid?